Friday, August 13, 2010

The Greatest of Fears.....Part 2

     I will continue with the story of my long-ago summer odyssey:
     Don Hedgpeth.  You’ve never heard of Don Hedgpeth?  Don is one of the leading authorities on Western Art and Western History.  He was the director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Society. 
     He wrote the book New Western Images: A Collection, which features the art of the Cowboy Artists of America.  He’s worked on books for many CA artists, such as Don Crowley, James Reynolds, Grant Speed, Joe Beeler and Howard Terpning. 
     Don Hedgpeth knows cowboys.  And art.  When Pam and I made our trip to Flathead Lake to meet him, he was holed up in a lake cottage, working on CA artist Fred Fellows’ book.
     I had that “Walking to Oz with my friends” feeling, when we headed for the door.  And once again, I dumped the ten 4 x 5 transparencies on a glass table.  He scrutinized, he thought, he made small affirmation noises.  He separates two transparencies from the group.  Two!  “These two are drawn well.  But they’re vignettes.”
     I have that “I’m fixing to learn a hard lesson” feeling move over me.  Hey, if you shoot rubber bands at a wasp’s nest, don’t be surprised when you get stung!  Then it comes….No bullshit, no hem haw, no beating around the bush.
     “Mark, you have got to paint backgrounds; you need action, to tell a story.  These vignettes are nice, but they will only take you so far.  Western art buyers want that Remington/Russell feel in their paintings.  You know….Indians, stagecoaches, a cattle stampede”.
     Well, the confidence I’d gotten from James Bama drifted away like smoke.  I shook Don’s hand and moved with purpose to the safety of the car.  Pam asks, “Are you alright?”  I got confidently belligerent. “I’m going to paint what I want to paint.”
     Looking back, Don was right.  Don was honest with me.  He was speaking from a reference point that started with the best in the business.  He set a high bar, and told the truth about what it would take to clear it.  Eight years later, I won First Place in Watercolor at a show he judged.  He happened to MC the awards program, and when he announced my name, I reminded him that we had had a chance encounter many moons ago.  (My early work had obviously not left much of an impression---he didn’t remember me.)  He was graciously mortified and apologetic, but I was the ingrate and unappreciative one. 
     I owe Don a huge thank you.  Not only for his time and for his knowledge, but also for the truth.  Artists tend to bruise easy, but what Don did for me was the reality check I needed at the beginning of my career; at that time in my art journey.
Takin' 'Em Down
     So what’s the point of these two tales of instruction?  Actually, there are several points:
1.     If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask.  But if you want to get better, find people like Don and James, and ask.  Just check your ego at the door and make some room for your old friend “Rejection”, who will be sitting right there waiting for you.
2.     Not everyone will like your work.  It’s a fact.  Deal with it.
3.     Ten years from now, the work you think is so good, will look like crap.  Deal with it.
4.     Glean what you can from the critique.  Artists tend to focus on the one perceived negative, and let four positive comments go by.
     And I guess the final piece of advice I’d have for you is this:  “The Best” are the best for a reason.  You might not like everything about their work or their style, but they have risen to the top of a pile of “wannabes”, so their advice is worth listening to.  If you have the guts to overcome your fears, you just might receive something that is priceless. 

Content and image of Takin' 'Em Down © Mark Kohler Studio.

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